Spanish-speaking Christians from 20 denominations will meet next month in Los Angeles to examine how U.S. churches are responding to a rapidly growing Hispanic presence.

Churches have made ministry to, and competition for, Hispanics a major priority. The nation’s fastest-growing minority group numbers from 17 million to 20 million, many of them unchurched. Most estimates list only 15 to 30 percent of Hispanics as “active” Catholics, with 5 to 10 percent identifying with Protestant churches.

“For many years, Hispanics have been an invisible people within society and the church,” says Herbert Arrunategui, coordinator of national Hispanic ministries for the Episcopal Church. “But they can’t be ignored any longer. This is a mission of opportunity.”

The church’s response takes many forms. At next month’s meeting, sponsored by the Hispanic task force of the ecumenical Joint Strategy and Action Committee, speakers will describe ways to develop Spanish-speaking congregations. Hispanics keep their culture and language for generations. As a result, several denominations stress the creation of separate congregations rather than integrating Hispanics into English-speaking churches.

Ministries to Hispanics often emphasize leadership training. The South Bronx Pastoral Center in New York City last year trained 650 Hispanics to administer sacraments in Catholic parishes and to work in other areas of liturgy, parish governance, religious education, and social action. In Boynton Beach, Florida, Saint Vincent De Paul Seminary has instituted the first Spanish-language master of divinity degree program. Students in a number of Protestant seminaries are encouraged to start Hispanic churches while studying for their degrees.

“There is a self-interest here,” says Eli Rivera of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. “Most of the major denominations have lost many members in large cities. And that is where Hispanic communities are growing.”

United Methodists in July elected their first Hispanic bishop, Elias Galvan, of Pasadena, California. The 14-million-member Southern Baptist Convention estimates that it offers 4,000 programs for Hispanics.

In the Roman Catholic church, 108 of 175 dioceses have offices concerned exclusively with Hispanic ministries. Eight regional agencies serve the same purpose. However, many Spanish-speaking Americans are joining Protestant churches. In a pastoral letter, U.S. Catholic bishops have denounced “anti-ecumenical” and “anti-Catholic” proselytizing of Hispanics by evangelical Christians and fundamentalists.

The two-million-member Assemblies of God attributes its recent explosive growth largely to new Hispanic members. Some 1,100 Spanish-speaking congregations make up 10 percent of the denomination’s membership. The Southern Baptist Convention boasts 1,800 Hispanic congregations. That figure grows by more than 150 a year. The American Baptist Churches list 209 Hispanic congregations; the Church of the Nazarene, 147; the Presbyterian Church (USA), 120; and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 30.

The influx of Spanish-speaking Christians into American denominations promises to influence religious life in the United States. James W. Carty, Jr., a professor at Bethany College in West Virginia, describes the worship style of Hispanics as usually “charismatic with simultaneous praying aloud; musical combos of percussion instruments, electronic organs, and guitars; and singing of hymns with theological concepts set to indigenous music.” The Hispanic exposure to grassroots Christian communities in their native countries could accelerate the push for lay decision making in their adopted churches.


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